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Trade on the Volga River

by nousheenkhan
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The river served as a major trade route in the 9th and 10th century and lost it importance by the 11th century

View of Volga from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (clicked by my dear friend, Sneha Rao)
1. Where is the Volga River?
2.People who traded on the Volga
3.Accounts from Arabic sources
4.City of Atil
5.Silver Coins as proof of contact with Islamic world

Where is the Volga River?

The Volga, which is Europe’s longest river, is a subject of poetry, art and literature in Russia. It has helped shape a sense of Russian identity through the years. The river has a symbolic meaning in Russian culture and is often referred to as Volga-Matushka (Mother Volga) in Russian literature. The river, in the words of the popular ‘Song of the Volga’ in the 1938 film Volga. Volga, was:

Mighty with water like the sea,
And just as our motherland – free.

Volga flows through Central Russia to Southern Russia and into the Caspian Sea. It has a length of 3,531 km, flowing through forests, forest-steppes and steppes. During the medieval era, the Volga, Europe’s longest river served as a major trade route and consequently, a centre for settlements.

Rivers such as Volga and other rivers of Eastern Europe served as trade routes as they flowed on flat terrain, unblocked by mountains. If the rivers became rough or gave out, the small canoes that were used could be carried on land.

People who traded on the Volga

During the Medieval era, the river served as a major trade route. Many Norse men sailed east into Eastern Europe and were called ‘Rus’ , which in Old Norse means ‘the men who row’. They traded the goods of the north such as fur, amber, iron and walrus tusks for goods they needed from other places. They also traded in slaves. By positioning themselves as middlemen, they profited greatly by selling to Byzantine and the Muslim empire. The Rus formed a trading confederation in the 900s. When the Rus ruler prince Vladimir converted to Byzantine Orthodoxy, the Christian world expanded to Eastern Europe and Russia.

When the Rus warband leaders had made enough money from fur and slave trade, they started to send money to their homeland in Scandinavia. Planned towns sprung up to support this trade like Hedeby (border of Denmark and Germany), Ribe (Denmak) and Birka (present day Sweden).

File:Varangian routes.png
Map of Norse trade routes in 7-9 century Europe (Volga route in Red) Source: Wikipedia

Accounts from Arabic sources

Arabic sources portray Rus people as mercenaries. Ibn Fadlan was a Muslim diplomat and traveller who visited Volga Bulgaria in 922 and described them as:

I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings

In early 900s, a Muslim observer names Ibn Rusta noted that the Rus “treat their slaves well and dress them beautifully, because for them they are an article of trade.” Many slaves came from Eastern Europe and the origin of the word “slave” is from “slav”. Ibn Khurradadhbhih marvelled at the high quality Rus swords which were essential to capture slaves and get Fur as tribute from Eastern Europe residents. The swords commanded a high price in the market.

City of Atil

It was located on the Volga delta on the North Western corner of Caspian Sea. Samosdelka is a fishing village in Southern Russia where archeologists claim that the remains of Atil have been found. It was a multicultural city inhabited by traders from different country as the city was a major trade centre in its days of glory. The Khazars controlled land between upper reaches of the Don (another river in Russia) and the lower reaches of the Volga. After the defeat of the Khazars in the second Arab-Khazar war it became the capital of Khazaria. The city is referred to as Khamlij in a 9th century Arab source.

In the late 9th century, Ibn Khurradadhbhih described the Rus buying goods from the Khazars in the market areas on the lower Volga and selling them on the markets of Caspian towns. The merchants brought furs, honey and slaves. Small groups of the Rus even went on camels as far as Baghdad to sell their goods.

After a period of peaceful co-existence, there was confict between the Rus and the Khazars which led to many raids. The main reason was that the Khazars collected duties on the goods traded on the Volga and hence it was in the interest of the Rus to gain control of that region.

Coins as archeological proof

The Rus used containers of pottery, glass, metal or birchbark to bury silver in the ground as deposit box and some of them were excavated by archeologists. The largest stockpile was found on Swedish island of Gotland, some 200 km south of Stockholm. In 1999, archeologists located 14,295 coins dating from 539 to 871. These collectively weighed about 67 kgs.

They often melted silver to make armbands. Once the silver was melted, it was possible to weight it using balance scales which they adopted from the Islamic world and have been excavated all over Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. Looking at the hoard of coins, it was evident that the Muslim world was much more important than the Western Europe to Rus as most of the coins had legends in Arabic.

The Rus not just traded with the Islamic empire but other empires and people too, however, the Volga route was primarily used for trading with the Islamic world. Thus, the Volga along with other rivers of Russia and Eastern Europe played a major role in influencing the trade and the history of this region. It is another example of how Geography influences History.


  1. The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World—and Globalization Began by Valerie Hansen, Simon and Schuster, 2020
  2. https://theculturetrip.com/europe/russia/articles/heres-why-russia-is-called-russia/
  3. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Rus

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